Marcus stared at the wall. It was tall, wide and white. If he was a different sort of person, he might have paid more attention to its composition. It was perfectly smooth, utterly without blemish or scar and completely clean. He might have thought about the amount of labor required to maintain such a surface. Perhaps, he would have wondered where those laborers were. At the very least, he should have asked why there were no guards. He had torn through the outer fence, a simple chain link that had been painted white, with little effort. This should have attracted a response of some sort.
Instead, Marcus thought only of himself. He was ready to do it. He was sure of that much. Once he started the fight, no one could beat him. But… starting was the tough part. He remembered being a child. Poor, hungry, always afraid. His mother worked for a lesser Lord. She earned just enough to keep them fed and clothed, not enough to be comfortable. He ran errands for the Lord’s servants, hoping to get something nicer. It didn’t have to be much, a toy, some candy, even clothes that weren’t threadbare or worn. The older boys took anything worthwhile he might have gotten.
Then, one by one, the Lords started to disappear. The first few just vanished. After that, one was found murdered in his own bed. The city’s highest Lord thought that there was a conspiracy, that some of the lesser Lords were trying to recruit allies against him. He began investigating them, seeking signs of treason. He found some who had been stealing from him, keeping back the best slaves, old technology or weapons. He called down his fire and killed them. The disappearances continued.
The city’s Lord went mad with rage, and that anger seemed to infect the other Lords. Some turned on each other, some fled and others closed the doors of their homes and attacked anyone that came near. Marcus and his mother’s Lord was one of the first to disappear. He remembered being afraid, again. The city wasn’t safe for someone weak. Without the Lords to control them, people ganged up, to protect themselves or to prey on others. He hid in abandoned parts of the city, with his mother. They didn’t have enough food. The buildings were unsafe, collapsing from neglect, offering little shelter from the weather. His mother got sick, very sick. After a month, it ended.
The Lords who fought mostly killed each other. The few survivors began hiding in their homes as well. One by one, they were found dead. Some were killed by guns or a knife. Others died strangely, drowning in their bathtubs, poisoned by food that hurt no one else. A few died without any sign of the cause. By then, it was obvious. There was no treason, no conspiracy. The city’s Lord was under attack by someone who didn’t respect the challenge ritual. Instead of simply walking in and presenting himself to fight the Lord, or one of the lesser Lords, this man simply murdered them. He snuck in, like a coward, and killed them in their homes.
Maybe someone else, another Lord, would have run. Lord Holocaust was strong. He’d never been beaten, not since the first time he called down his burning storm. Everyone knew that. A message appeared in the sky, written in burning letters above the city. Marcus’s mother could read, just a little, and told him what it meant. The Lord was demanding that the attacker come out, face him. Everyone knew where the Lord waited for him. There was a great pillar of flame to mark the spot, taller than the city’s tallest building. The Lord waited, and waited, but no one ever came.
Marcus didn’t know when it happened. The body wasn’t hung up and displayed. There wasn’t a big fight, no burning buildings or explosions. One day, word just got around. There was a new Lord. Holocaust was dead. The city belonged to Stainless now. No one had ever heard of him. No one knew what he could do. They just obeyed the man, called him Lord. He didn’t bring in new Lords to serve him, just normal people. Soon, the city was working again. Everything went back to normal, maybe even a little better. Everything but his mother. She died. There was no food for the ones who couldn’t work, and she was too sick.
The new Lord’s men organized the people, gave them specific tasks and jobs. It seemed like there was a plan for everything. They even settled disputes, didn’t let people steal or hurt each other. Anyone that crossed them wasn’t burned alive, they just disappeared.
Everyone knew their place. There were the normal people, doing the jobs they were assigned, getting food or clothing in return. There were the Bands, the Lord’s lowest servants. They wore white arm bands, gave orders to the work crews and reported any problems or crimes to the Shirts. All the Bands in a group of a few blocks reported to a Shirt, who wore a white shirt. They gave the Bands orders and decided who was right or wrong in the disputes. There were a few Suits above them. Marcus didn’t know how many there were or exactly what they did. You didn’t see them very often, but the Bands and Shirts always looked scared when they came around and always did what they were told. Above them all, never seen in public, was Stainless.
One day, Marcus recognized one of the Bands. It was one of the other boys, one who had stolen from him and beaten him, years ago. Marcus didn’t know how to join the Bands. That meant he could never get stronger, he’d always be at the bottom. Bands below Shirts, Shirts below Suits, Suits below Stainless and Marcus on the bottom, forever. It made him angry. So angry that he attacked the other man. He hadn’t thought about it or planned it out. Marcus had just seen the man in the street, realized what it meant, and started screaming while he ran at him. The Band had pulled a gun and shot him before Marcus was halfway there.
He should have died. Instead, Marcus felt a pain in his chest, like being hit with a hammer, and then a strange burning. He’d stopped, looked down at his chest, and seen the hole in his shirt but no wound. That was when he found out he was a Lord. He grinned, feeling wild and powerful. It was the first time in his life when he didn’t feel fear, not even a little. The Band shot him again and again. With each shot he felt the pain, a little weaker each time, and that strange burning. Just before the man’s gun clicked empty, on his very last shot, Marcus felt the impact but no pain.
The Band tried to run and Marcus had chased him. He was stronger, taller and in better health than Marcus. But the burning had come back, during the chase. It was in his legs and his lungs, this time, and for every moment of it his breath came a little easier and his legs moved a little faster. It didn’t take long to catch him. Marcus beat the Band, the older boy whose name he couldn’t remember any more. Beat him to death with his bare hands. He laughed while he did it, laughed while he felt the burning in his arms and hands. It was the best feeling he’d ever had.
He hid again, for the last time, while he tried to figure out what he could do. Marcus saw other Bands come through the neighborhood, even a few Shirts, looking for him. It didn’t go on long, maybe a week or so. The old Lords never would have stopped searching. Anyone who crossed them would have been hunted forever. It was the last little bit of proof that Marcus needed. Stainless was weak. That’s why he’d killed the Lords the way he did, sneaking and cowardly. That’s why he didn’t have any lesser Lords to serve him. He knew they’d realize how weak he was and turn on him. As far as he knew, Marcus and Stainless were the only Lords in the city, now. Stainless was weak and Marcus was strong. He knew what that meant. The city was his, he just had to prove it.
That was why Marcus was here, at the building Stainless’s men had ordered the people to make. It was a great white dome, surrounded by a white fence. No one went in or out but the men who wore white. This was where Stainless hid. Marcus was sure of it. He would break in, find Stainless, and kill him. Then everyone would know, would see that he was the strongest. Marcus punched the wall.
He felt the pain, felt the burning, and did it again. When he saw the first cracks appear, he knew he’d won. Anything that hurt him, anything that made him feel pain, brought the burning. It healed him, fixed him, made him better. If you shot him, Marcus got tougher. If Marcus hit someone, it hurt his hand. If he hit someone as hard as he could, it hurt his arms. Everything brought the burning, Marcus’s power. No matter how tough the other guy was, eventually, Marcus would be tougher. He tore out chunks of the wall like it was made of wet mud.
“Come out!” he shouted, so loud that he could feel the burning in his throat.
Marcus stepped through the hole he’d made, into the palace. It was just a white corridor, running from left to right. The walls were the same material. There was no sign of anyone else.
“Stainless! Come out and face me!” he shouted again, louder.
He followed the corridor, for a time. There weren’t any signs of a door.
“Coward! Weakling! Hiding while your home is torn apart!” he shouted everything he could think of, hoping for a response. Marcus was a little worried, even though he was strong. But that only lasted until he figured out what to do. If he could break through the wall outside, he didn’t need a door. He picked a spot, and attacked the wall. This one didn’t last long at all.
Marcus came through the wall, into a large room. Again, it was white and featureless. And it was big, an enormous square. He walked into the center, trying to decide which wall to go through now. There was a sound, a whisper, and a piece of the ceiling slid aside. Something like the barrel of a gun but larger, as big as his arm, slid out. Without thinking, Marcus turned to run. There was a sound, a great crashing, like the biggest explosion he’d ever heard. It was followed by another, and another, and another, with almost no space between them.
With the first shot, he was driven to the ground. Marcus felt pain like nothing before it. There was blood and shattered bits of the floor all around him. He could smell the stink of gunpowder and his own scorched flesh. He was out of his mind with fear, confused that he hadn’t died. But he felt one more thing, and when it sank in, the fear vanished. The burning, it was stronger than ever. Eventually, the shots stopped. Long before that, they’d stopped having any effect on him. He’d just lain there, laughing, for the last of them.
“Is that all?!” he called out. “You’re weak! And I’m only getting stronger!”
He walked, casual, with no sense of the lingering fear that he’d felt before, to the wall opposite the one he’d come through. He didn’t even need to hit it, this time. Marcus pushed forward, barely slowing as the wall crumbled around him. The next room looked the same as the last. He smirked, wondering if his cowardly enemy would bother trying to shoot him, again.
He let out a startled cry as the floor beneath him dropped away. He fell, he didn’t know how long. It was quick, even though the top of the pit he landed in was at least a hundred feet above him. The fall hadn’t been enough to hurt him. He was too tough for that now. He just smirked as he drove his hands and feet into a wall, climbed out as easily as he could’ve crossed the street.
It went on like that for a while. Marcus broke into a room, was attacked by some kind of trap, got tougher or ignored it, then broke into the next. He was so happy he could’ve thanked Stainless. All these traps, the cowardly tricks he was using to hide behind, did nothing but make Marcus stronger. Acid fell from the ceiling and burned his skin. Streams of fire shot out of little nozzles and stuck to him. Some kind of gas that made his lungs and eyes hurt. Every time, the burning came and healed him, made him stronger. His skin healed and took on a faint bluish tone. The fire destroyed his clothes but the burning didn’t let it harm him. He cough a bloody mess and went blind for a moment, but the burning made everything right. He lost all fear.
Eventually, he was so tough that the traps didn’t even hurt. Marcus laughed as the air crackled with electricity. He twitched a little, at first, but the burning fixed that. The next room was the first to repeat itself, another pit. He’d already raised his face and opened his mouth, to taunt his foes again, when the acid came down. It tasted awful, but that was it. He heard the enormous gun firing and the crackle of electricity, saw the flash of fire and the gas in the air. Instead of laughing he just smiled, he was naked now but he didn’t care. Nothing could hurt him and he’d never need to hide again. Marcus had some trouble climbing out. The gunfire did nothing to him, but it did damage the wall he was climbing and the slippery acid interfered with his grip. He gave up, after the third time he fell, and just jumped out.
That had to be the last one. Stainless wouldn’t have started repeating traps if he wasn’t desperate. Marcus paused before the final wall, as a thought occurred to him. He was about to kill Stainless. That meant he’d be the new Lord. But… what would he call himself? Lord Marcus didn’t have the right feel.
He knew a name mattered. It was the first thing anyone would know about him. No one wanted to mess with Lord Holocaust. Before him had been Bloodrule, Kill Star and Stone Fist. Marcus was too young to remember Lord Stone Fist, but his mother had told stories about the man. They had been… well, they’d been freaking terrifying. None of them lasted more than five years. Marcus smirked, Stainless wouldn’t even last six months.
Another man might have wondered, if those other Lords were so fearsome, how they had all fallen. That other man might have wondered exactly how Stainless had defeated Holocaust, a living fire storm. He would also have asked why, after all this time, and all this destruction, Marcus had still not seen another living being within the building. Instead, Marcus was trying to pick a name that would tell everyone he couldn’t be beaten. Well, when he put it like that, the name seemed obvious. He tore through the wall and into the throne room.
That was the only word that fit the room. It was a huge, dome of a room, completely unadorned. Except, of course, for the large black chair in the center. That was actually the only thing he’d seen that he approved of. It was a great steel thing, black and imposing. Even as he studied the man sitting on it, he decided to keep the throne after Stainless was dead.
The man was wearing a white suit, complete with vest and tie, gloves and a white helmet. The helmet was close fitting, a single piece that concealed the head and neck. The face plate was flat, featureless. He had no idea what it was made from. It looked like metal, but even as the man’s head rose, the neck piece flowed and shifted like cloth.
“Stainless?” he asked. For once, he didn’t have to make any effort to sound confident.
“Indeed.” Stainless’ voice was distorted, like a machine was speaking, toneless and even. “And you would be?”
“Lord Invincible.” his grin was something new to him, feral and joyful. He walked forward to stand before the throne, on its raised dais. Stainless didn’t bother to stand, just sat with one leg crossed over the other and his hands in a steeple before him. “Coward, weakling, this is my city now.”
“Is it?” came the strange voice’s replay.
“Ha,” he laughed, “your traps couldn’t stop me. They just made me stronger.” The soon to be former Lord of the city seemed to shrink before him. “What could you possibly throw at me, that won’t just do the same?”
Stainless stood from his throne, his for now, and walked towards him. Lord Invincible was surprised at how short the man was. He could see the rounded top of his helmet, shining in the light. He stopped a few feet away, just out of reach. Wait, something was wrong. Stainless was still getting shorter but…
He looked down and laughed. He was flying!
“See! I’m getting stronger all the time!” he declared.
A mechanized sigh, and something that could have been a laugh, came from the featureless mask.
“I take it your powers don’t enhance your intelligence?”
“Charts say it’s unlikely.” answered another voice.
What? Who was that third voice? It seemed to have come from the ceiling.
“So you think you can fly? Just move forward. All you have to do is hit me.” Stainless taunted.
Why hadn’t he felt the burning? He tried to fly, tried to land, but nothing happened.
“No, I thought not.”
Jaime hated his job. Despite being completely sealed, the helmet didn’t obstruct his view. He assumed there were concealed cameras or something. That made it harder to ignore the idiot screaming at him. The fool was floating a few feet off the ground and naked. Apparently, he wasn’t smart enough to figure out that with nothing to push against, he couldn’t move himself.
The room’s previously concealed entrances appeared as floor panels slid aside. Some of Stainless’s other men came in, carrying a variety of equipment. He tried to remember his next lines. The Shirts were assembling a metal container around the poor boy. The sphere’s exterior had a number of devices attached to it, ready to maintain the weightless effect once the floor unit was shut off. Jamie positioned himself so that he’d be the last thing the sorry bastard saw.
“You call yourself Lord Invincible? Wrong. You cannot be harmed, not truly, but you can be defeated. Anyone can be.”
The last section of the sphere slid into place with a clang. He took off the helmet.
“Anyone know if that guy’s gonna suffocate in there?” he asked, trying to keep the hope out of his voice.
“Chart says no. He made it through a room filled with chlorine gas, no sign of discomfort even though there wasn’t any air.”
“He’ll probably be in there a long time, then.” he said, failing to hide his feeling of pity.
The Shirts lowered the sphere onto a platform and began moving it below. It’d probably end up in the storage area. Jamie headed towards another opening, hoping that this would be the last intrusion he’d have to play bait for.
Somewhere below the giant trap that looked like a building, there was a trio of Suits. They were gathered in the center of a moderately sized room, studying the markings on the walls.
“Any issues?” one of them asked.
“No, the attacker was subdued by the first measure in the throne room.” answered a second man. “The enhanced strength and durability protocols were enough.”
“This still feels weird.” added the last man. “I mean, it’s a series of flow charts.” He pointed to the top row on the column marked DEFENSE. “Guys gets through the outer fence, and the thing tells us what measures to get ready, depending on the method he uses. He breaks through the wall and runs into a bunch of defenses.” The others didn’t answer, letting him make his point. “If one takes him down, problem solved. Otherwise, his reaction to each one helps determine the protocols we use in the throne room.” He paused, pondering his next point.
“Yes?” prompted the first speaker.
“I’ve been a Suit for three months now. There’ve been a dozen attacks by Lords strong enough to be a real threat. Every one of them taken down by a plan that I would have called brilliant, perfectly tailored to their strengths and weakness.”
“Would have?” asked the second.
“If I didn’t know they were the product of a flow chart, one written before the building was built, yeah. Knowing that, it just seems… unreal.” He struggled to find words, there was more, something he wanted, and was afraid, to ask. “We’ve got charts for dealing with Lords, organizing work groups, trading with the Lords of other cities, anything you could name.”
“Yeah, that’s right.” He didn’t notice which of them spoke.
“It’s incredible, but… Who made it?” The other two just stared at him, before answering in unison.
“You’re telling me he’s real? I just assumed…” he was at a loss for words. “He’s not just someone you made up? A stalking horse?” Were they serious? “I just thought, all this, that it was a bunch of Lords with precog or mental powers. That… maybe I’d get to meet them eventually.” The other two shared a look, before one answered him.
“No. Stainless is very real, he’s just not in the city anymore.”
“He’s running the city by flowchart, and he’s not even here?”
“Yes. He wrote these up, then left.” they answered.
“So where is he?” he asked.
“Specifically? We don’t know. He said he was going to gain another city.” He just stared at them in shock. Lords that held more than one city were rare. But if he could protect this one by proxy… maybe.
“One thing,” the first to speak added, “before you continue to ask questions like this…” he gestured to another section of wall, “you should probably read that one.”
He followed the suggestion. The column was labeled TREASON (SUITS). Its entry was only one word: Don’t.
Lord Ruler didn’t know what to do. He’d been a city Lord for six years. In all that time, he’d never faced an enemy that gave him cause to worry. He was stronger than ten men, healed from any wound instantly, could move metal by will alone and control the emotions of those around him. Better yet, most opponents couldn’t even affect him with their powers. He was immune to all but the strongest of the other Lords.
Yet now… now he had a foe that was different. His most trusted servants had been murdered, others turned against each other. His human underlings were panicked, in disarray. He had no idea who the interloper was, didn’t know his powers or what his plans were. Obviously, the coward was trying to bring him down from the shadows, but how? Eventually, this fool would have to face Lord Ruler. Then, then he would learn.
“I am invincible.” he said.
The intruder’s voice was mechanized, unrecognizable. He stepped through the room’s entrance, wearing a white suit, gloves and featureless helmet. No part of him was exposed, not hands or face. The man’s body language was confident, betraying no sign of weakness. Ruler could see his guards’ corpses behind the man. Despite the blood on the floor, the man was stainless.